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Dunkirk (1958)


Main image of Dunkirk (1958)
35mm, 134 min, black & white
Directed byLeslie Norman
Production CompanyEaling Films
Presented byMGM
ProducerMichael Balcon
Associate ProducerMichael Forlong
ScreenplayDavid Divine
 W.P. Lipscomb
CinematographyPaul Beeson
Music byMalcolm Arnold

Cast: John Mills (Corporal 'Tabby' Binns); Richard Attenborough (John Holden); Bernard Lee (Charles Foreman); Robert Urquhart (Mike Russell); Meredith Edwards (Dave Bellman); Maxine Audley (Diana Foreman); Lionel Jeffries (medical officer); Patricia Plunkett (Grace Holden)

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The events leading up to the routing of British forces from Northern France, and the shambolic but heroic rescue effort.

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Dunkirk was one of the last films made under the Ealing Films banner before the company, now based at MGM's Borehamwood studios, was wound up in 1959. Ealing's production chief Michael Balcon called it "perhaps the largest-scale film with which I had ever been connected" - although for director Leslie Norman it was "by no means an 'epic' - rather small scale". Regardless, the film succeeds in evoking the magnitude of massed troops awaiting evacuation on the Dunkirk beaches, a scene revisited in an altogether more epic mode half a century later in Atonement (d. Joe Wright, 2007).

The film shifts its focus between the reluctant pluck of John Mills' Corporal Binns, leading his unit across hostile countryside to the French coast, the despair of Bernard Lee's journalist at confused Allied military tactics and the gradual awakening to the war effort of an initially unengaged new father Richard Attenborough. By the time the troops are rescued from the beaches, the disparate characters have pulled together and a sceptical British public has discarded all notions that this is a 'phoney war'. This display of consensus across class and nationality (Binns' unit contains Scottish and Welsh soldiers), typical of Ealing films produced during the war when it had obvious propaganda value, had postwar relevance too.

What's most distinctive about Dunkirk is how resolutely downbeat it is, especially compared to the patriotic celebration of other 1950s British war films such as The Dam Busters (d. Michael Anderson, 1955) or Reach for the Sky (d. Lewis Gilbert, 1956). It gives full voice to wartime dissenters, whether on the home front or awaiting rescue on the French coast. Indeed it's really only in the final minutes, when the voiceover talks simultaneously of a great defeat and a great miracle whereby a nation had been made whole, that any positive spin is placed on events. None of which proved an obstacle to the film's great commercial success.

Fintan McDonagh

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Video Clips
Cruel Sea, The (1952)
Young Veteran (1940)
Attenborough, Lord Richard (1923-)
Balcon, Michael (1896-1977)
Lee, Bernard (1908-1981)
Mills, John (1908-2005)
Norman, Leslie (1911-1993)
Ealing Studios (1938-59)
Ealing at War